The Numbers Racket
As the Soviets expanded the Cold War geographically in the 1960s and 1970s, the CIA significantly increased the size and number of its stations and bases throughout Africa and Latin America. In the Third World working for the CIA was a rite of passage for many men (Third World agents were and are almost all men). For Latin Americans, Arabs, and Africans, association with the Agency could be highly respectable and reasonably well paid. The CIA was the little guy's conduit to the cabal that ruled the world. Third World targets were usually inexpensive and relatively easy for the DO to recruit and run, and their "flap" potential was far less than that of agents operating against our sensitive First World allies.
With most of the Third World seen as a legitimate Cold War arena, case officers worldwide could go after local diplomatic or military representatives. Even if the CIA was not in fact interested in recruiting a given official of a given Third World country (admittedly, a rare circumstance during the Cold War), a case officer could still chase the target and label him an "access agent," who might conceivably lead to a more promising, usually Soviet, recruit. With the entire Third World "on the screen," recruitment possibilities for the average case officer increased enormously. One of my former chiefs of station once remarked about a Soviet case, "Isn't it amusing to contemplate the hundreds—God knows—of African access agents we've recruited over the years when the Russians are among the world's worst racists?"All told, the CIA recruited thousands of people from the Third World.
The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, with its enthusiasm for "objective criteria" in "performance appraisal systems," further solidified the DO's head-counting ethic. Though the act didn't technically apply to the Agency (Langley is in theory exempt from civil-service regulations), in spirit it did. The business-school philosophy of "management by objective" officially became de rigueur throughout the DO. (The current harassment problems of the IRS probably also stem from this quantitative philosophy run amok.)
As the CIA got larger, bureaucratic standards were formalized. The power of DO promotion panels eclipsed the old patronage system. The organization needed a common criterion for "objectively"judging the case-officer corps. To a considerable extent the American ethic of judging all people equally and the American fondness for translating merit into numbers gave rise to the practice of agent head-counting on case-officer evaluations.
To most people at the time, the annual head count—how many agents have you recruited?—seemed an efficient, progressive idea. Quickly, however, a rather raw reckoning of numbers took hold. By the early 1980s Africa, Near East, and Latin America Division case officers dominated the DO because recruitments in their regions were relatively easy. By the time I entered the service, senior officers regularly counseled young Soviet and Europe Division case officers to have at least one "recruitment tour"in Africa or the Middle East early in their careers, in order to avoid being forgotten by the promotion panels. At The Farm senior Africa Division officers tried to enlist trainees by bragging that operatives in their division racked up more recruitments, and thus were promoted more quickly, than those in any other division. Not once did I meet a senior Africa Division officer who extolled the quality of the intelligence reports produced by the division's vast roster of agents.
Overseas in the 1980s and 1990s my junior-officer class encountered DO managers offering $3,000 bonuses for "scalps" provided by Christmas or Easter. Bottles of champagne were awarded to case officers who generated the most intelligence reports. The winners usually scored twenty or thirty reports a month. In 1989 many of my colleagues were stunned to receive a cable from a division chief who had spent his career chasing Soviets. He recommended one "high quality" recruitment per year for each case officer in his division. This cable came on the heels of a worldwide headquarters cable announcing that all our Cuban agents had probably been double agents. The competition realized long ago how desperate America's case officers are for scalps. They have been happy to provide them.
In 1993 CIA director James Woolsey sent a cable to all stations and bases encouraging case officers and their managers to push for quality, not quantity, in their recruitments and intelligence production. To an extent Woolsey knew that there was a recruitment problem in the DO. That same year, however, the DO issued new performance-evaluation guidelines for young case officers, who are responsible for the vast majority of all DO recruitments, re-emphasizing the centrality of recruitments in the promotion process. Officers in the field didn't have to read between the lines: the numbers game continued. Woolsey never knew that the DO had betrayed his good intentions.
By the time I resigned, in 1993, the DO had introduced the "Asset Validation System" for assessing foreign recruits. The DO billed the AVS as a means to prevent the recruitment and running of double agents and tired Cold War leftovers. The AVS did not officially attempt to root out "cheap recruitments." However, in the early 1990s a number of scandals in which star case officers were caught fabricating agents and intelligence reports gave reform-minded case officers hope that the DO might finally rein in the promotion-by-recruitment system. We all knew that these aggressive officers had merely pushed accepted standards of exaggeration and deceit a little too far.
This hope has proved naive. Although some senior officers will now quietly admit that there has been a numbers game, they usually complain that the 1980s generation of case officers gave rise to the problem, which they and the AVS are now solving. However, the AVS—dubbed "agent scrubbing" by The Washington Post and often credited as a reform initiated by John Deutch (in fact William Webster began the program; Robert Gates and James Woolsey significantly expanded it)—has not really affected the recruitment game. Case officers must now write a few more cables for each recruitment—a little extra paperwork in order to gain a seal of approval. Officers can even avoid doing the paperwork altogether: in the ever-growing paper flow between headquarters and the field, AVS requirements can easily disappear for years into a bureaucratic black hole. The recruitment of mediocre, if not entirely worthless, access agents continues.
Case officers have learned that they can recruit a worthless agent and later have the agent scrubbed without damage to their careers. Close questioning of recruitments in the DO remains uncommon. A case officer can recruit eight assets in Geneva, move on to his next tour in Paris, have all eight Geneva-based agents scrubbed, and still receive glowing evaluations from the Paris chief of station.
The AVS also does nothing to verify the value of information from the foreign agents who produce clandestine intelligence and who are the raison d'être of espionage. Standards for judging a source's intelligence production are so low that a case officer can easily believe, or pretend to believe, that the most routine contact is a first-rate intel developmental. With "forward-leaning" (that is, optimistic) cable traffic papering his way, an ambitious case officer can turn a friendly low-level telephone-company official into a sensitive penetration of a foreign nation's telecommunications industry. Once headquarters certifies a developmental's intelligence reports, the case officer knows that the developmental's recruitment will probably be approved. Clever case officers can also easily "push" the facts and opinions available in open-source news, or mirror classified State Department telegrams, to make a developmental or an agent seem like an adequate intelligence producer. Pushing the news and mirroring State have, regrettably, become second nature inside the DO, particularly among aggressive officers who know the system. And once poor intelligence becomes acceptable, the rule of the lowest common denominator takes hold, and cheap intel and agents inevitably become the standard.
The Agency knows that DO soft reporting on State Department issues often draws the ire of U.S. diplomats. Foreign Service officers who have access to clandestine-intelligence reports have long known that the CIA is poaching on their terrain. And as any Agency analyst will admit, the State Department and overseas representatives of the U.S. Treasury have generally provided the finest official commentary on politics and economics. Clandestine information from paid agents is by no means inherently superior to information from unpaid sources, as outsiders usually presume. Whether the subject is NATO expansion, democracy in Russia, Toulouse's Airbus versus Seattle's Boeing, the U.S. trade embargo against Iran, or the future course of South Africa, Kazakhstan, or Croatia, it has been diplomats and their contacts—not case officers and their agents—who have usually proved to be the U.S. government's most knowledgeable sources. But State reporting is not, like Agency reporting, appetizingly packaged in bite-size morsels. Diplomatic telegrams do not benefit from the boldly printed, highly classified code words that adorn Agency products. Bureaucratically inept, politically timid, and cash-starved, the State Department has rarely tried to take on Langley—a rich and tough bureaucratic power—for the DO's recruitment antics and shoddy reporting.
When I was in the service, I regularly encountered DO bosses who encouraged their case officers to put information gained from State cover work into CIA intelligence channels. When they couldn't duplicate State sources, case officers tried to borrow or to steal them, thereby putting U.S. diplomats in the awkward position of having to explain to their foreign counterparts why the U.S. government sometimes sends two "diplomats" asking the same questions.
Though case officers deserve most of the blame for debasing American espionage, they could not have done it alone. Analysts in the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence, who are the primary consumers and judges of foreign-intelligence reporting, share the responsibility. Like case officers, the analysts generally don't have the necessary languages, academic preparation, or in-country experience in their areas of supposed expertise. Ever since Robert Gates, as deputy director of intelligence, reorganized the Directorate of Intelligence in the early 1980s, it has been rare for an analyst to spend more than a few years working on one country. Promotions, especially promotions to managerial grades, come more quickly to generalists who have covered several areas. Sitting in six-by-six, usually windowless, cubicles, and confronted daily with demands for short-order "finished" intelligence, analysts rarely have the desire to sacrifice their careers by slowly building the skills that give uncommon insight into foreign countries.